This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Have We Been Fooled About Jeanne Calment Dying at age 122?

A few days ago, Carl Schmertmann tweeted a link to a paper in ResearchGate in which a Russian academic offered evidence that Jeanne Calment--widely recognized to be the oldest verified human being at her death at age 122--had, in fact, died many years earlier and her daughter had assumed her identity. Thus, it was really her daughter who died at age 99, pretending to be her mother who would have been 122 had she not died many years earlier. 

Given the proliferation of fake news, with special suspicion on Russian fake news, I admit that I read the paper but chose not to blog about it. However, Smithsonian Magazine did pick it up, and then today's Washington Post grabbed the Smithsonian story.
Nikolay Zak, of the Moscow Center For Continuous Mathematical Education, said in a report that he believes Calment was actually Yvonne Calment, Jeanne’s daughter, who Zak says assumed her mother’s identity to avoid inheritance taxes in the 1930s. If true, Yvonne Calment would’ve been 99 if she died in 1997.
He points to studies that show Calment had lost less than an inch of her height by the time she was older than 100, significantly less height loss than what would have been expected; Yvonne was taller than Jeanne, he says. A passport for Jeanne in the 1930s lists different eye colors for her than she had later in life. He also raises questions about other physical discrepancies in her forehead and chin. He also claims Calment had destroyed photographs and other family documents when she had been requested to send them to the archives in Arles. 
The study has caused a global stir since it was issued. It has been covered by news media organizations around the world.
The evidence pointing to the sham is all circumstantial and incredibly complex, and Zak himself admits that he hasn't presented an iron-clad case. My view is that it doesn't matter too much, since the odds of any of us reaching an age even close to 120 are very long. It perhaps is more discouraging to those researchers searching for the clues to keep humans alive to ever older ages. 

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